Customer experience
Feb 04, 2019

What on earth is Service Design, anyway?

Transforming the business through the lens of experience

Service design, a hot topic in the design and business communities, is showing up as the subject of blogs, books, conferences, and undergraduate/graduate school courses. Agencies and consulting firms that consider the intersection of design and business offer it as a core feature. And that begs an obvious question: What on earth is service design?

Because the practice is somewhat new, it's not surprising to find numerous definitions. Here are a couple that I find useful.

In her blog post "How many service designers does it take to define service design?," Megan Erin Miller writes, “Service design helps organizations see their services from a customer perspective. It … balances the needs of the customer with the needs of the business, aiming to create seamless and quality service experiences. [It] is rooted in design thinking, and brings a creative, human-centered process to service improvement and designing new services…"

I like the focus on helping organizations see their own internal services from a customer viewpoint. It's also important to note the views of employees.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia's definition takes more of an organizational focus:

“Service design," the crowdsourced encyclopedia declares, “is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication, and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. Service design may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely."

Confusion can mount, however, because service design overlaps with interrelated disciplines such as design thinking, customer experience, journey mapping, Lean Six Sigma, change management, and systems thinking. I find the practice easier to understand if we consider the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of the experiences that we encounter daily. To borrow the old adage of “I don't know what good art is, but I know when I see it," we know good and bad service design when we experience it.

For instance, we know the feeling of waiting at rush hour in a crowded station – where track numbers aren't announced until the last minute – only to be pushed along by angry commuters trying to nab the few remaining seats. It leaves the impression that no one took the time to understand how we, as commuters, would like the experience to unfold. This suggests either bad service design – or the absence of design altogether.

On the other hand, when we seamlessly enter at an amusement park and embark on rides with our magic bands, when our expectations of wait times are effectively managed, and when standing in line can actually be delightful, we experience good service design. Disney parks, for example, make the latter possible by offering those waiting in line rides on the Expedition Express, which spirits you away to a Himalayan outpost.

The Disney experience is good because every aspect – beyond the ride itself – was effectively designed with the needs of the human at the center. Even though some of the delight of the experience was physical, digital technology had a lot to do with it. The interconnection of systems, technologies, and people made the experience work end to end. Some of the people involved were front-stage actors. Others worked behind the scenes. The interconnection between each human and digital element, as well as flawless execution, was critical to success.

Components of good service design include:

  • Human-centered planning decisions that consider the context of the experience both digitally and non-digitally
  • Coordination between back- and front-stage actors using data and digital tools to improve our digital and physical experiences

About the author

Dave Derby

Dave Derby

Director, Strategy and Service Design at TandemSeven, a Genpact company

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